'Percy Jackson and the Olympians': An Analysis of a Shifting Culture

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Posted: Feb 08, 2019 5:00 PM
'Percy Jackson and the Olympians': An Analysis of a Shifting Culture

Source: YouTube Screen Grab from 20thCenturyFoxFilm

Before discovering "Harry Potter," I discovered Rick Riordan's "The Lightning Thief" in my sixth-grade study hall. While I was supposed to be doing sums, I was reading about the exploits of an ADHD afflicted middle-schooler as he battled against demonic math teachers and chimeras disguised as small dogs. Not only did it appeal to me because I shared some of the same struggles as the main character, but because of the "Firefly"-esque character banter and the integration of Greek mythology (which I loved as a kid) into then contemporary America. And even though the series doesn't hold up as well from an adult perspective, this doesn't mean that the books can't still be mined for cultural analysis. We're not going to be looking so much at the quality of the books, but more how they reflected the changing culture around them, why they weren't as successful as something like "Harry Potter" and if there's any hope for series longevity. Also keep in mind that I will specifically be talking about the first set of books. The spin-offs and sequel series have no place here. Neither do the god-awful film adaptations, for that matter, even though you can find a trailer for the first movie at the bottom of the page. That’s the price you pay for good screen shots.

Oh, and for those of you who don't know a thing about these books, here's a quick synopsis of the plot (Minor Spoilers). All-American 12-year-old Perseus "Percy" Jackson discovers that he is a half-blood, the offspring of his mortal mother and one of the Olympian gods. Apparently, the ancient Greek deities have uprooted from Mount Olympus and set up shop in the US of A because they align themselves with whichever country in Western Civilization is the strongest. The main overarching narrative involves Percy, his rival-turned-friend Annabeth, the daughter of Athena, and his satyr friend Grover, stopping the plans of the Titan king Kronos to come back from Tartarus and take over the world. 

What jumps out about "Percy Jackson" the most is how unapologetically of its time it really was. The five books in the "Olympians" series were released from 2005 to 2010, a time in which America was still struggling to recover from 9/11 and find its identity in a steadily growing world. It was a transitionary period between the relatively peaceful days of the 1990s and the politicized fustercluck of the 2010s. In other words, we were on the cutting edge and a lot of pop culture reflected that, especially if it was aimed at young adults. Bands like Linkin Park and Green Day got big off of pandering to teenage angst and the expanding branches of the emo culture movement. Foreign movies were becoming more commonplace with Studio Ghibli offerings like "Spirited Away" and "My Neighbor Totoro" becoming favorites in the VHS libraries of children and drawing attention from growing movie geeks.

However, I think the medium "Percy Jackson" shares the most similarities with is the action-heavy cartoons that were popular at the time. Even though children's cartoons have always had some violence to them, the 2000s were a time when the violence was less focused on slapstick comedy and more on thrilling combat set pieces. "Kim Possible," "Samurai Jack" and "Avatar: The Last Airbender" were all shows that replaced the more trivial physical humor you'd see in something like "Looney Tunes" with more consequential fight scenes you'd be more likely to find in a comic book. The "Percy Jackson" books fit right into these specifications, with battles that are fun while still retaining a sense of danger and stakes.

The other major change that defined cartoons of the new decade was an emphasis on character banter and interaction. This is most likely because of the massive success of Joss Whedon's then-recently concluded "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which popularized this kind of witty character banter through its seven-season run. This kind of writing style was perfect for 2000s action cartoons which often had both heroes and villains with big personalities. "Percy Jackson" followed suit with its own character banter, a combination of sharp-tongued insults and people backing out of the argument because they can't think of a sharp-tongued insult. However, what separated "Percy Jackson's" banter from other examples is that it was completely character-based. Rather than throwing in banter for the sake of banter, regardless of whether the character would use banter, Riordan was careful to keep dialogue true to the personalities he'd laid out.

So, if Riordan did such a good job at tapping into the zeitgeist of the time, and in some ways making it better, why wasn't the series more popular outside of the U.S.? Well, the short answer is that it was too American to be enjoyed by anybody else. This doesn't mean that it was overtly patriotic or blatantly pushed American political ideas. Even the idea that the Greek gods are part of America because it's the strongest Western civilization is more of a throwaway explanation than proselytism. When I say the books were too American, I mean in their attitude. The series perfectly captures the process of being an American teenager; the feeling that you're misunderstood by those around you, the camaraderie through insult, the complete lack of verbal filter and self control, the transition into noticing the opposite sex and even the admiration for older people of your own gender who aren't your relatives. This is in complete contrast to its most obvious competitor, "Harry Potter," which certainly had a British identity to it, but it was more in the background, with Rowling preferring to focus on making her characters relatable for anybody who read them. Riordan, on the other hand, wrote his stories specifically for his son and used middle-schoolers as his test audience. With that kind of focus group, you can't not end up with an essentially American product.

With its cultural identity so thoroughly time- and landlocked, does the series have any hope of longevity? Absolutely, and like with every piece of literature that lasts, it lies in the characters rather than the ideas. Not only are Percy, Annabeth, Grover and the rest of the cast all likable, they're relatable. Even as the culture of the country continues to shift, I'm not sure if the experience of being a teenager ever will. There will always be the desire to fit in and find your place. Boys and girls will always make the awkward transition from avoiding each other to nursing crushes. There will always be the desire to be special or stand out from the crowd. There will be rivalries, rocky friendships, heartbreak and relationships that don't even fall under a clean classification. In other words, being a teenager is a time of big change and high emotion and the characters experience all of it. Over all its other YA competitors, "Percy Jackson" perfectly captures the chaos of the messy transitionary period from child to adulthood. And while it still remembers that being a teenager can be a lot of fun, it's the kind of unstructured, impromptu fun that comes from unhinged youthful energy.

Percy Jackson isn't just a mirror for the youth culture of post 9/11 America. It's a mirror for young adulthood in general. A perfect time capsule and yet an ageless odyssey through the teenage years. It's the kind of book that seems to understand you when you read it and fiction that understands is fiction that teaches. It can offer role models and be a guideline for your life, just as it was for a certain bored 12-year-old in 2010 just looking to avoid his math homework.